Published on November 29th, 2016 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Alex Duncan
From actor to author to filmmaker, 2016 has marked an artistic breakthrough for Alex Duncan.
Familiar to fans of the Crazy8s Film Contest, Alex Duncan had the lead role as serial killer Vivian in Joel McCarthy’s short film, I Love You So Much It’s Killing Them before sharing her most personal artistic project with the world as the self-published book, An Army of Hearts.
As a recent winner in the 2016 Storyhive competition, Alex Duncan is turning her own literary project into a fully-funded short film, which she is currently co-directing. She took a break to speak to us about her inspiring creative odyssey.
Can you start by telling us about the inspiration behind An Army of Hearts as a book?
I wrote An Army of Hearts in 2012 for my Dad. He was sick with cancer and was away receiving treatment and I wanted to find a way to help him feel supported by the community that cared so much about him. After writing the text, I set out with an array of hand-painted hearts and took portraits of his family, friends and community – his very own army of hearts. I was surprised and humbled when the message of my project grew and people began to reach out and send me their hearts from all over, resulting in the final book holding about 200 photographs of people who cared for my Dad. Many of these people expressed that if I were to ever make additional copies of the book, they would love to have one. After my Dad passed away, I decided to embark on the journey of transforming the book into an illustrated picture book that would hold the same message but be more universally accessible. I hired painter Paul Morstad and together, we worked to make real this dream. I am proud to say that I self-published the illustrated version of An Army of Hearts this past June.
What was the biggest challenge for you in completing the book and how did you deal with it?
This entire experience was a bit of a study in what-are-the-things-you-don’t-know-how-to-do-now-go-do-them. Everything was new and to be learned, which was both inspiring and terrifying. I think the most challenging part was trusting my instincts while remaining open to feedback and criticism. I feel fortunate to have Paul as a working partner as well as my business partner, Mike, as they each brought their own perspective to the project, which ultimately helped to shape the book that now exists. I have a tendency to get caught in circular, non-productive thought patterns in my head so think it is essential to have a team that shares trust and respect to brainstorm and bounce ideas around with.
What can you share about the evolution from book to film through Storyhive?
When I was making my book, a friend sent me the link to the film adaptation of Dallas Clayton’s The Awesome Book of Love by Yael Staav. First, I bawled, then, I found myself thinking that I would love to make something that felt similar. To adapt my story once more into a film that explores universal themes of love, grief and sickness. I think that Yael Staav did an incredible job of capturing subtle, human moments in a way that feels so earnest and beautiful to observe. I had coffee with my friend and now co-director Lauren Bercovitch and spoke to her about my desire to do this (I presented her with a timeline of about a week and a budget of about two dollars) and she called me crazy, which was fair. But then, when StoryHive launched their Female Director’s Contest, Lauren called me and we decided to go for it together.
What advice would you have for other actors who want to enter the arena of writing – whether it might be for print or screen?
Some advice that I received from my StoryHive writing mentor that really stuck was the importance of simplicity; to trust that a clear and concise story can be captivating and not feel the need to over-complicate things. Perhaps this is general life advice too…ha. But I think that has been a huge part of the forward-motion of my project that the message is simple. There are so many branches and angles one can use to capture the power of love, the strength of community.
As I also mentioned above, I have also found it extremely important to stand behind myself, my choices and instincts and to be persistent in my need to create. Patience and flexibility are important too as things always take longer than expected and there will likely be obstacles that need to be worked over/under/around.
The Crazy8s2016 film that you starred in, I Love You So Much It’s Killing Them, will be playing at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival. What did the Crazy8s experience do for you as an actor and what did this role mean to you?
Working on this film was a completely hilarious and utter delight. When I got the audition, I made the choice to go really dark with it and was genuinely surprised to discover that I booked it. I was so excited to play a role that was completely different from what I have ever worked on before. Joel McCarthy, the director, gave me a great deal of space to bring my own choices to the character and it was a privilege to build Vivian as I saw her. It was also my first time performing my own stunts and working with so many moving parts – weapons, fake bodies, real bodies, bathtub drownings – just all the elements! The experience of working on the film gave me the opportunity to branch out and again, trust my instincts and choices, and in doing so, I feel more confident as an actor going into auditions now as it affirmed that each person brings something totally unique to the character and their audition.
What books and authors have been most influential to you as an actor and also as an author yourself?
My acting teacher, Kate Twa, told me to read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger as a study of attention to detail and it is one of my very favourite books. Everything is so precise. The pages unravel to reveal full paragraphs that describe each specific detail of the way that Franny holds her fork; information that could be brushed over as mundane or unimportant is suddenly so quirky and essential as the mannerisms of her holding her fork tell us so much. I love it. Another book that I found very influential was Letters to a Young Poet, which I was assigned to read when studying theatre in New York. Both these books and well-worn and tattered as I like to flip back on them every so often. The best kind of book!
What other projects are you involved with at the moment?
I am auditioning for things all the time but am trying to put all of my focus and energy on the making of this film. I will be flying to New York this week to shoot the first scene and cannot wait. Exciting details to be revealed soon!
Where can we find out more about you?
Thanks to Alex Duncan for speaking with us!
Watch for the Alex Duncan’s Storyhive-funded short film adaptation of An Army of Hearts in January!
In the meantime, you can check out I Love You So Much It’s Killing Them as part of the 2016 Whistler Film Festival on December 3rd.